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Trans Visibility Means Letting Them Play Sports

Trans Visibility

Professional and college athletics make it so difficult for openly transgender people to participate that most don't even try, writes Brit Fryer.

I loved playing sports when I was a kid. During my school days on the south side of Chicago, I jumped from soccer to softball to skateboarding and finally landed on basketball. I was heavier than most kids my age, and sports gave me confidence in my body. It gave me confidence about what my body was capable of. I remember staring at the basketball court, marked with cones for shuttle sprints, thinking, There's no way I can run this much. I did run that much, and at the end of each practice, I stood next to all my teammates and coaches feeling secure and confident in my body and who I was as an athlete.

This is the beauty of sport. It is one of the few institutions that bridges divides, brings people together, and elevates its best performers to celebrity status. It's also one of the few institutions that can change an individual's life on such a profound level. For me, a transgender athlete, sport continually acts as my north star.

Despite where I am in the process of discovering my identity, sport remains a constant safe space to play, connect with teammates, and just exist. The benefit of sports that I enjoy, however, is not universal. An entire population of people remains systematically excluded from the joys and benefits of sports -- transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming athletes, like me, have to constantly jump through a patchwork of protections, inconsistent policies, and cultural ignorance just to stand on the field, pitch, or court.

Despite being 5 foot 5, I was a center on the women's basketball team at my high school. For four years, I got to take a break from the nagging internal questions about my body, my gender, and my identity to just practice a game I loved playing. My teammates were my allies before I had the words to explain how I was feeling, and my coach was my role model when I needed one the most.

When I went to a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, my gender became a central and definitive part of my identity. At the time, I was questioning identifying with the sex I was assigned at birth. I was uncomfortable with labeling myself a woman, so trying to play women's basketball in undergrad didn't feel true to who I was. Luckily, during a student activities fair, I happened to see a table of people of all genders throwing around an oblong ball. I soon learned this weird shape was a rugby ball.

Rugby is a unique sport. Though it is separated along gender lines, the rules and uniforms look pretty identical on either side of the line. This special feature drew me to rugby, along with the accepting culture of my team.

After I came out as transgender, I was considering starting the process of taking testosterone. This could help me develop facial hair and a deeper voice, and help my body take a more traditionally masculine shape. Even though I wanted to start immediately, I felt compelled to wait because I feared that I wouldn't be able to play sports under the combination of school policies, recreation policies, antidoping policies, and sport governing body policies. This is the all too often reality in collegiate athletics.

Now at 24 and out of college, I still compete in sports, sometimes playing rugby with a local men's club in New York City. I also work for Athlete Ally -- an organization that advocates for LGBTQ equity in athletics. In my role, I speak to a lot of college students. I also hear stories, similar to mine, of trans athletes who have to navigate the complexity of their colleges' sports governing bodies just to figure out if they can play. Because schools and sports institutions adopt a reactive stance to trans and nonbinary athletes, it often falls to the athlete to figure out how they can play. This David versus Goliath approach creates a dynamic in which trans athletes often turn away from sports in the face of frustrations, inaccessibility, and ignorance. We are shutting out about 1.4 million adults from one of the greatest institutions.

We often hear from colleges that they "don't have any trans athletes," and "when we do have a trans athlete, we will of course implement inclusive policies." I'm here to tell you that stance is wholly unacceptable. You should never assume the identity or orientation of your student athletes, and by taking this approach you leave trans athletes who are not yet out open to ridicule and discrimination. Having proactive and accessible policies sends a clear signal about your campus or team's culture. It sends a strong message to trans athletes who may be looking for a sports community where they are welcome.

I want to note that as a trans man, I find most sport policies that do exist for transgender athletes favor me. Compared to trans women, trans men often have less strenuous regulations regardingg which team they can play for. Trans women are still subjected to the false notions that men are inherently stronger, which creates a culture in which trans women are subjected to much more rigorous regulation.

What's the first step we can take to ensuring sports is an equitable space for all? The NCAA published a set of guidelines for transgender participation in 2011. College institutions have a responsibility to immediately adopt the NCAA's guidance for trans participation in sports.

I urge everyone reading this article to see if your alma mater or prospective academic institution has publicly adopted this policy. Public adoption of more inclusive policies is the first step that we can take to including athletes like me in the joys of sports. Sign the Athlete Ally petition today to stand with trans athletes in search of equitable sports spaces.

BRIT FRYER is a graduate of Carleton College and works as a programming and communications coordinator at Athlete Ally.

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Brit Fryer